That is how far Sulaiman Bayoh travelled to study Chinese in China.
What sets his story apart is that he was born in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa that is only slightly larger than Ireland.
His parents separated when he was three, leaving him and his older brother with their father.
After a few years, his father moved them to the city, where he worked as a government servant.
While Bayoh and his brother were initially placed in a public school, his father had other plans.“
Education was an important factor in my family.
But our father wanted us to have a better education and experience, so we moved to a private school, Modern High School,” he told Study International.After finishing high school in 2010, the Sierra Leone native was clueless about what he wanted to do.
At that time, the University of Sierra Leone offered a Certificate in Business and Finance, which Sulaiman thought was a good idea.
In this, Bayoh felt conflicted.“I didn’t want to continue this further; while it was related to business, it has aspects of IT in it,” he shares.
Bayoh’s pursuit of happiness
Like most of us, Bayoh dug deep to figure out what he wanted to study — something that could become a career in the future.
He fondly recalls that his brother had quite an influence on him, especially when Bayoh would watch him tinker with electrical items in the house.“
My brother would wait until something fell apart to try and fix it.
I watched and learned. Music was also something my brother got involved in, which led me to follow in his footsteps,” he says.
His interest in business, music and finance drew Bayoh to Njala University to study for a Bachelor of Science in Business and Information Technology.
For the first two years, Bayoh had high hopes for what he thought was a course that would land him the career of his dreams.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.Bayoh decided to drop out of his third year at university without telling his father.“
There was some apprehension, of course.
The programme was good, but the business aspect of it was more economics, while the IT subjects consisted of computer science mostly,” he says.
After dropping out, he now had plenty of free time.
Realising he needed to do something, Bayoh pursued his two passions: music and events production.
He already knew people in the industry.
Together with his friends, they managed and organised events and music gigs and volunteered for any other events when they could.
In one of these events, he reconnected with a friend who lived away from the city.
Picture a neighbourhood on the outskirts with plenty of rocks — the type that needed to be broken down into smaller pieces so they could be reused or sold.“
I saw kids as young as five or six years old helping their parents break rocks.
They were poor and didn’t have any other prospects,” Bayoh recalls.
These children were not getting an education.
Fueled with a desire to help, Bayoh and his friends planned to start a non-profit organisation to send the children back to school.
However, the Ebola crisis hit Sierra Leone hard in 2014.
It was one of the worst times for the country.
Bayoh remembers as poor infrastructure and weak governance propelled the disease even further.
The disease claimed many lives while hospitalising the rest.
The government set up a centre for reporting.
Bayoh jumped at the chance to help however he could, taking on the role of telephone operator.
By 2015, cases subsided and Bayoh continued to pursue his dream of helping the students stay in school.
He imagined having a place for them to interact and learn would be a good start.“
We wanted to encourage students to continue studying but give them a safe space to have fun.
So, we rented out a space and held football games, races, card games and more for these children,” Bayoh shares.
The start of Bayoh‘s journey abroad to China
While Sulaiman was helping out with the Ebola crisis, his father had no idea he dropped out of uni.
When he found out, sparks flew.
“My father almost disowned me. We didn’t speak for months. I can understand why and realise that I could have handled things differently now,” he says.
Surprisingly, his father did start speaking to him — but there was a catch.
A family friend who worked in the education ministry heard of a scholarship to study in China and was convinced Sulaiman would be a good fit.
Chinese scholarships have been immensely popular among Sierra Leoneans for the last few years.
They are part of both government’s testaments to capitalise on their human resource and education sectors.
Bayoh agreed and applied for the scholarship.
“I was quite happy when I received news that I got the scholarship. It was 100% paid for. I left in September 2015 on my own to a land I had never been to before,” he says.
The trip was long and tedious; he went through Ghana, Kenya, and Ethiopia before finally arriving in Guangzhou and making his way to Wuhan, China.
He made the best choice to study Chinese
For the next year in Wuhan, Bayoh learned Mandarin at Central China Normal University.
The Sierra Leone student would soon reap the benefit as he started his Bachelor of International Economics and Trade at Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics.
60% of the programme was conducted in Mandarin and the remaining in English.
Luckily, he had everything he needed to thrive in his new environment.
“The lecturers were good. Initially, they spoke English, and they understood the process we underwent. But gradually, we began doing everything in Mandarin, and we had to adapt,” he says.
Sulaiman’s peers came from all over, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and South Africa.
The whole university had about 200 international students; everyone got along well.
That aside, living in a relatively city like Wuhan meant that things were affordable.
Plus, the accommodation was great, according to Bayoh.
“There was a hotel on campus that was converted into student housing, so it was really comfortable. I didn’t struggle with food either,” he shares.
After graduating in 2020, Bayoh returned to Sierra Leonne amidst the fatal Covid-19 outbreak.
Upon completing a short internship, he saw a job opening at the Ministry of Planning and Development.
It was for the role of Aid Management Officer, for which he secured an offer.
The job entailed coordinating and collecting data from development partners and international organisations.“
The data collected was to be given to the respective ministries for the development of infrastructure, transport, healthcare, education and others,” he says.
A move to Germany was next on the cards for Sulaiman
Bayoh was happy, but something bothered him.
He regretted not completing his studies earlier.
Worrying his age was catching up, he sat and thought long and hard about what he could do to feel more content about his career.
Bayoh’s next move?
Pursuing a master’s degree.
“I wanted a cushion to fall back on, I knew by now things don’t always go our way, and it made me feel uneasy,” he says.
He felt like having work experience from another country would make him a better candidate for future endeavours, so he began looking for universities to further his studies.
Sulaiman applied to NOVA School of Business and Economics in Portugal and Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany.
Eventually, he chose to pursue a Master’s in Management at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.
Bayoh shares there was another reason to move to Frankfurt and attend this university — his girlfriend now turned fiancé.
“I met her when we were both in China studying. When I moved back to Sierra Leone, she came back to Frankfurt, but we remained in a long-distance relationship,” he says.
Despite all the assistance and information she gave Bayoh, his biggest challenge was getting an appointment for his study visa to Germany.
There needed to be an appointment to drop off his documents and a subsequent one for an interview before he could be granted his visa.
“The process wasn’t a long one, but it was stressful. There was plenty of vagueness and uncertainty. In fact, by the time I received my visa, I was already more than a month late for class,” he says.
That did not interfere with his studies because he attended his classes online from Sierra Leone since he couldn’t be in Frankfurt physically.
Online classes remained an option for those still waiting for their visa from all over the globe.
His postgraduate experience was a drastic shift from his undergraduate days.
“Being in the classroom was quite a different experience to learning online. The class was quite large; we had people from India, China, Hungary, Italy, and others,” he shares.
Much to his delight, all the teaching and learning was conducted in English.
Today, Bayoh is busy preparing for his wedding.
“We’ve been busy choosing colours and making plans for the wedding. But I also still have two semesters to go. Eventually, I do want to find work in project management,” he shares.
By LYDIA NATHAN